Then the women came
“I don’t think I can accept”. The words came out as an inaudible whisper. “Or so it seems to me.” These words were uttered that late morning on a Friday in December 2011 by Sister Nicoletta Vittoria Spezzati, whom everyone calls Nicla, remembers every moment. Except the one in which she heard something unthinkable, unexpected, and unplanned. “At the time I was about to finish my job as head of the periodical Sequela Christi in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Cardinal João Braz de Aviz summoned me to his study, where he was waiting along with his secretary, Archbishop Joseph Tobin. They told me, “His Holiness Benedict XVI has appointed you undersecretary of this Dicastery”. My memory is a little fuzzy of that brief moment, but I recall, “I mumbled something like, I think I cannot accept”. Then again, what follows, everything comes back clearly to Nicla: the laughter and hugs of those present, and the deep emotion. “And the first wish I received, the most beautiful, was sent by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the dicastery for the Clergy: ‘Sister, I wish you to be a Magnificant Antiphon in the Church’. On that day, the Church introduced Christmas with the singing of the Magnificent Antiphons and invoked O Wisdom, who comes forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaches out to the ends of the world, and disposes all things with sweetness and strength. Come; teach us the way of prudence. I keep on my work table, even today, this precious invocation”.
Nicla Spezzati, a religious of the Sisters Adorers of the Blood of Christ, university lecturer and spirituality expert, was the second woman to receive a top post in the Roman Curia. In 2004, John Paul II had appointed Sister Enrica Rosanna, of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, to that role. Many, however, thought she was a singular example. With the choice of Sister Nicla as undersecretary, Joseph Ratzinger decided to continue on the path opened by his predecessor. “In the long conversation with Pope Benedict I understood that he expected from us women a participation in the life of the Church that is rich in a special spiritual and cultural generativity. He drew the female face of the Church. A vision that I cherished with Pope Francis and continue to cherish with special care”.
Try to explain that to us...
For me, it means embracing and making connections, with everyone, acting in continuous collaboration with women, especially consecrated women, so that we are a voice of the Gospel and intelligent companionship in the human city, without separateness.
What was it like to find yourself becoming the undersecretary?
I gave myself time to adapt, so I stayed and worked in my small office, before taking the official “location” of my new service. I did this to listen and learn, while at the same time to collaborate, to participate, to propose from a feminine vision and bring this to discernment and common decision. A new way to seek balance, but also a way of serene parresia.
What has been the greatest difficulty?
I have tried to continue my research and not conform to obvious stereotypes. Let me explain what I mean. I have kept my approach of listening that welcomes, evaluates and discerns vigilant. In so doing, I have been able to support thoughts and proposals that have emerged from a feminine vision in the Church and consecrated life with parresia.
I have passionately cultivated -and it has often been hard-, my ability to listen to other voices and approach them critically, while going beyond ideological parameters. I have tried to be open to contemporary cultural examples and continually challenge myself, while favoring elaboration, praxis, and decisions in support of the “humanum”, man-woman, and its growth in the newness of the Gospel as much as possible. To this end, I repeated to myself, and constantly repeated to myself, Madeleine Delbrêl’s phrase, “Read the Gospel held in the hands of the Church as one eats bread”. Madeleine herself has been an invaluable source of inspiration. I admire her contemplative and prayerful vision of life, the balance and dialectic between action and contemplation, between visceral attachment to the Church and impatience with the possible excesses of formalism and power, between critical lucidity and humble compassion. Moreover, I am fascinated by her missionary vision that was capable of excluding no one.
Is there a specific contribution women can make within a long-standing “male” body like the Roman Curia?
The place can be intimidating. It is because of this that the challenge is not to give in to the temptation to experience one's office as a mere function to be fulfilled. I think the Church asks women to go beyond performance, to express their full potential. That all-female peculiarity of joining mind and heart that makes us able to intuit, to glimpse, and to initiate processes. I have savored meeting with hundreds of consecrated men and women and with pastors of the Church, with different communities in different circumstances. It has been a school of common research, a moving forward together in the newness of the Gospel. These are small steps so that the Church expresses herself in the beauty of the human, reciprocal, harmonious, dialectical, and vital.
by Lucia Capuzzi
A journalist with the Italian daily newspaper, “Avvenire”